Powell Elementary School

Architecture firm: ISTUDIO Architects

Owner: DC Department of General Services

Location: Washington

Category: Excellence

Project site: Previously developed

Building program type(s): Education - K-12 school

Merging old and new, the modernization of Washington, D.C.’s Powell Elementary School has shaped a vibrant, green, and healthy learning environment that accommodates the school’s rapidly expanding program. The project combines two new additions and the renovation of a historic brick building through a biophilic approach that bolsters a connection with the cycle of the day and the changing seasons. It also introduces the city to its first-ever solar chimneys.

The project began as a small renovation of the existing historic school, but the team saw a much greater need for the predominantly Latinx school community, which had doubled in size. Fortunately, as the project commenced, President Obama visited the school to raise awareness of the increasing need for quality education. That visit helped the school garner additional funding for two modern additions to accompany the historic building’s renovation.

“This is proof that watering the “seed” of a local community’s development can bear fruit well beyond its borders.” – Jury comment

The two new wings, designed to meet LEED-S Gold standards, add 90,000 square feet to the school’s tight urban site. Their design was guided by four key concepts that contribute to healthy learning environments: outdoor spaces, differentiated learning, daylighting, and fresh air. As a whole, the school is an interactive tool for 21st-century education where engagement with sustainable strategies will encourage a new generation of environmental stewards.

Passive ventilation has been embraced by both students and staff. When the temperature, humidity, and wind speed are right, a green light in each classroom activates, letting the students know to open the windows. As the solar chimneys draw out stale air and replace it with cool air, didactic signage explains the stack effect to students and how they can play their part in environmental stewardship.

The project was planned around two green spaces that offer visual and physical access to the outdoors. Numerous outdoor learning spaces, including natural playgrounds, an outdoor classroom, a green roof, and rooftop curriculum gardens, align with new methodologies in STEM curricula. Exterior stairwells that lead to the outdoor programmatic elements offer students and teachers additional exposure to fresh air between classes.

Spaces inside and outside of the school were designed to accommodate the various ways students learn. The school’s corridors and library feature bay windows with nooks and seating arrangements for small group sessions. Every classroom entrance has bench seating for one-on-one instruction, and the school’s double-height atrium with stadium seating functions as an additional breakout classroom.

The bilingual school not only lifts up its students, but it also welcomes the entire community to its facilities and programming. A critical resource, it draws parents and neighbors to its play spaces and English as a second language classes. To make way for the additions, a beloved community garden was relocated to a hillside across the street, now offering ADA-compliant raised garden beds and stormwater management that prevents erosion.

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of substantial project completion: 2018

Gross conditioned floor area: 90,072 sq. ft.

Project team

Architect: ISTUDIO Architects

Engineer - Civil: AMT Engineers  

Engineer - Structural:  Keast + Hood Engineers  

Engineer - MEP: Setty & Associates  

Engineer - Geotechnical: ECS Capitol Services, PLLC  

Consultant - Technology: Educational Systems Planning  

Consultant - LEED: Sustainable Design Consulting

Consultant - Acoustics: Hush Acoustics

Consultant - Food Services: FDS Design Studio, LLC  

General Contractor: MCN Construction  


Lori Cappucio, AIA (Chair), SmithGroup, Washington, DC

Omar Bailey, AIA, Shepley Finch, Phoenix

Vince Gonzales, AIA, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle

Kandis Larsen, AIA, Integrus + YGH, Spokane, Wash.

Sindu Meier, AIA, William Rawn Associates, Milton, Mass.

Image credits

Powell Elementary School-03

Anice Hoachlander Photography

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Anice Hoachlander Photography

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Anice Hoachlander Photography

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Anice Hoachlander Photography

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Anice Hoachlander Photography